DIM (Did It Myself) Subway Tile Backsplash

I’ve been in this battle with the oven for a while now. Well, I guess I’m not in a battle with the oven, but I’m battling over the oven, which I really liked until the nonstick coating inside decided it was so nonstick that it wasn’t going to stick to the oven and started flaking off and I had to argue with the warranty company, the store that sold me the oven (and pushed the extra coverage really hard), and the manufacturer. It’s been an exhausting headache, and I encourage each and every one of you to never buy an oven with this blue nonstick coating, probably avoid LG products altogether and don’t waste your money on a Lowe’s Protection Plan which will find every excuse possible to not cover defective products.

Long story short, only a year and a half after purchasing a fancy new range, I found myself shopping for a different range, and the one that caught my eye was a slide-in rather than a freestanding which really just means that it’s got to go next to a counter and not out in the middle of the room (isn’t that where you like to keep your oven, in the middle of the room?), and the control panel (control panel? what is it, a rocket ship?) is in the front instead of on the back. This was fine for me, though, because when we moved into this house, the oven was not next to a counter and after cooking exactly one meal, I panicked because there was no convenient place for either cooking utensils or oven mitts. The refrigerator, a side-by-side model, was another source of irritation because it was right against a wall which meant that the handles kept me from me fully opening the refrigerator door. It was good enough for the day-to-day, but I couldn’t slide the crisper or vegetable drawers all the way out to properly clean them and I couldn’t fit large trays of baked goods in to chill (I have to firm up the crumb-coat, dammit!). We looked and pondered and scratched our heads, and realized that the water line for the fridge was anchored underneath the oven and the breaker box was directly underneath the refrigerator. We had the strong suspicion that the appliances had swapped places at some point and swapping them back would be relatively simple. So we did. It solved so many problems. I could open the fridge and freezer doors all the way, the water line ran a much shorter distance over the basement ceiling, the oven was now next to the counter where I could keep my utensil crock and I could even put a hook on the wall for potholders. The only problem is that the fridge was wider than the oven, so the oven (and mounted microwave) isn’t quite centered in the space, but that’s a small price to pay for such convenience.

I’ve wanted to add a tile backsplash to the kitchen for some time, but now that I was looking at getting a slide-in range, the issue became more pressing, as I’m the kind of person that makes a decent mess while I’m creating (cooking) that has to be cleaned up later. We tiled the foyer in our home a couple years ago and, although it was hard work, I enjoyed it and it was good practice.

I fought the desire to put in tile to match my lime and teal color scheme, and decided to go with basic white subway tiles that would go with the cabinets and anyone else’s tastes should we ever decide to sell the house. Finding subway tile was harder than I imagined, since it’s supposed to be such a timeless classic.

I thought I had found the tile I wanted and rejoiced because it was a bargain (15 cents apiece?! We’d be crazy not to use these!), but while they had a lot of positive reviews, the negative reviews pretty consistently said the same thing: “These are poor quality, not uniform, and formed hairline cracks immediately after installation.” One bad review to that effect would be dismissible. Things happen. Several accounts of the same issue, however, is a red flag (which, frankly, just does not fit into my color scheme). And I was still sore about not heeding any warnings to avoid LG for bad customer service and products that don’t last. Kalen and I decided we should check some places besides the Blue Store for tile to see if they had some better quality options.

This was an unexpected obstacle, because apparently our town doesn’t have a lot of small local businesses directed to DIYers. Most of the businesses we thought to check were only open during the week or had very short Saturday hours. They must only work with people who make home improvement their day jobs and amateurs like us are relegated to big box stores. Remembering businesses from other places we had lived, I checked for stores geared toward kitchen and bath remodeling, but didn’t find anything that specific with a Google search. I did find a couple of flooring stores though, which had escaped my notice before because I wasn’t looking to tile a floor at this point. When we found one of those that we could get to before they closed for the afternoon, I started off the inquiry with “So, ‘flooring.’ Is this a ‘use only as directed’ type of situation, or is there a little wiggle room, because I’d like to tile a wall, but I don’t plan on walking on it, because a) gravity, and b) health and sanitation.” I got a couple of weird looks, but excellent service otherwise with some price quotes on a few different styles.

I was surprised to find, based on the information from the flooring salesman and confirmed by the YouTube how-to videos I watched, that my unusual ideas about kitchen decor go beyond color scheme to include how the edge of the backsplash ought to be finished. I was under the impression that bullnose tile was relatively easy to come by to create that rounded edge at the end of your line of tile. The tile salesman said that “wasn’t really done anymore” and manufacturers were selling this new trim piece that is typically metal. I saw a lot of these metal trim pieces on YouTube (once I finally scraped the bottom of the barrel searching for tips to make a clean finished edge. Apparently a lot of you are just leaving the blunt edge exposed, but if I’m going to all this work, I want it to look fancy when I’m done.) These new trim pieces (also available in plastic, according to the salesman), do finish the edge and look nicer than simply stopping the tile when you get where you’re going but…. they weren’t the look I was going for. Some of our neighbors used the white version of this trim on their kitchen, and it looks very nice, but it didn’t fit what I was picturing for my own kitchen. I could just picture myself cracking the plastic edging and having to remove a whole bunch of tiles to fix the crack, and the metal options on all the videos looked too commercial. Not in the way a home kitchen can look upscale with a big commercial oven and a stainless counter and sink, but commercial in the sense of heavily patterned low-pile carpet designed to hide stains and cheap matte paint designed to minimize the appearance of dings. The metal edging looks like it belongs in a restaurant bathroom or hotel hallway, not the warm, inviting kitchen of someone’s beloved home.

We ended up finding tile at the Dusty Green Store, in boxes that would cover 17 square feet. The area I wanted to tile was just over 20 square feet, so we bought two boxes to allow for the possibility of cracked or broken tiles and mistakes on my part, and then, happily, the tiles matched some pencil liner trim pieces we found at the Blue Store. At the recommendation of a few how-to videos from This Old House, we purchased a pre-mixed mastic and some grout, and borrowed a tile cutter from our neighbor.

Most of the renovation jobs we’ve done in this house included moments of perplexed discovery as we find puzzling aspects of previous renovations. Luckily, this job was not one of those, as there wasn’t too much preparation to do. I cleared off the counter, cleaned the walls and removed old caulk, which was not nearly as horrible as I expected, and yielded a very satisfying pile of rubbery strings that reminded me a lot of the fishing lures I used to collect as a child (I was a weird kid, okay; I don’t have an explanation for it, I just liked rubber fishing worms). I also screwed a support board to the wall for the tiles that wouldn’t have a countertop to support them, removed outlet covers, and taped off where I wanted the backsplash to end.

Speaking of plate covers: I took extra care to tape the screws to the plates so I wouldn’t lose them, but I ended up replacing the plates anyway because they were grosser than I realized and didn’t all match. I also had to put box extenders into the outlets to allow for the extra space that the tile would need. Once the extenders were nestled in the electrical boxes (turn the power off unless you like getting a little zap while you’re working), I taped down a drop cloth (the sheet I accidentally stained with hibiscus tea a couple weeks ago, as it happens) and it was time to get to work.

I didn’t have a lot of experience tiling, but I’ve found that one of the best ways to learn and understand something is to find ways that it relates to something you already know. When Dad helped me tile the foyer, I compared the consistency of the thinset and the grout to batter (thinset is best mixed to the ribbon stage; grout should fall from the mixing paddle in a V like choux batter). Or maybe I just really miss baking with my oven out of commission. Either way, I found plenty of ways to make this tiling job feel like I was whipping up tasty treats.

The regular trowels and other tools are great, but gave me a little trouble in tight corners. Never fear, I have a spare spatula that is perfect for that! I didn’t want to mixing up so much grout as to justify a five-gallon bucket and the big drill attachment. An old hand mixer beater fits into the drill nicely, and an old plastic bowl is much more appropriately sized than a bucket! The This Old House guys made applying a little extra mortar look so easy, but I just kept making a mess. A disposable piping bag neatens up the job! (Actually, I didn’t have any disposable piping bags, but I made one out of parchment paper, and later just out of a ziploc bag, because the parchment kept unrolling on me, but the precision of squeeze mortar can’t be beat!) Just don’t try to taste the forbidden frosting. You’ll only be disappointed.

Even applying the grout felt a lot like applying a crumb coat to a cake: smear it on and push it into the cracks and and then scrape off the excess. I’m just glad I didn’t have to chill it in the fridge to set it. (If you’re a construction person, that might not make sense, but if you’re a baker, that’s hilarious. Just trust me.)

Because I went with simple, rectangular subway tiles, most of the cuts I had to do were easily accomplished with the tile cutter: straight lines at right angles. I was even able to do my 45 degree cuts relatively easily with the score-and-break method, marking my lines with a washable marker (dry erase would have been ideal, but this good ol’ Crayola worked remarkably well on my slick tile) and lining it up on cutter to score and snap just so. The pencil tiles and the tiles around the outlets required a more specialized touch, however.

Most people use a tile saw for cutting tile (which, honestly, makes too much sense), and we rented one for the tile in the foyer. It was about 12 degrees outside when I was working on the kitchen, though, and I wasn’t excited about the prospect of splashing around with all that water in such conditions. A few of the tutorial videos we watched had mentioned that a diamond-edged blade on an angle grinder worked well in lieu of a full on tile saw. We don’t have an angle grinder, either, but I did find a diamond blade for the Dremel, made for making cuts in ceramic tile. I have logged quite a bit of time on the Dremel over the years grinding Pippin’s claws (with a sandpaper bit, not a tile blade), and was confident this would work. The local Ace Hardware had the blade in stock and I went and picked it up.

For bigger jobs with bigger tiles, obviously the tile saw is going to be the way to go, but for my little subway tiles and pencil tiles, the Dremel attachment worked great. I ran the Dremel at a fairly high speed and didn’t push into the tile too hard and got great cuts every time. It did make a quite a bit of dust, though, which made cleanup a bigger job and irritated my sinuses (just wear a mask, Holly, what’s wrong with you?), but I was very pleased with the final result.

Once the grout was dry, I put new caulk in and did a little touchup paint in places where the sharpie had gotten away from me or I had gotten a little overzealous with the mortar. We keep a variety of little foam brushes in the basement for this type of thing but I had some particularly tight corners to touch up with this and needed to improvise.

Initially, I had planned to only do the pencil trim on the very outside edges and to let the cabinets serve as the upper border for the backsplash everywhere else. As I put the tile in, however, I realized that the final space was a little less than half the height of one tile and cutting the tiles lengthwise was a little trickier than across their width. Instead, I bought more of the pencil tiles and used them to trim the whole top. This left just a tiny sliver of wall showing between the tile and the bottom of the cabinets, and while this would typically only be seen by small children and my mother-in-law (she’s not nit-picky, she’s just very short; she’s a great mother-in-law), I still felt the need to do the touchups. My foam brush was too big, however, and I began searching for a better solution. I must have been getting tired at this point, because I’d rather not admit how long it took me to realize that, rather than dabbing at it with a Q-tip, I actually had paintbrushes upstairs in my crafty cabinet that were the perfect size for such an application.

I installed the new plate covers and sat back to admire my handy-work. It’s not perfect; there are a few mistakes. And the side by the oven will continue to look a little odd until I get a new oven and build a small shelf to fill the extra six inches between the stove and the wall, but hopefully that isn’t too far in the future.

And of course I had to wipe up all the dust I created with the Dremel and scrub the mortar off the floor where I had stepped in it and tracked it around. But I’m really pleased with how the project turned out. Every time I walk into the kitchen, I see the tile and think, “It’s so pretty!” It looks like it belongs, like it goes with the house, and it will make cleanup much easier. Which is good, because this is definitely a land where people (read: me) can spill.

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